Tracking Indiana's stimulus money
Bob Segall/13 Investigates
Indianapolis - Indiana has already received more than $2.5 billion (yes, that's BILLION) from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. 13 Investigates discovered not all of that money has been stimulating the state's economy and putting Hoosiers to work.
When President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, unemployed Hoosiers like Robin Gilmour took notice.
"It gave me hope," said the 54-year-old grandmother in Carmel. "I thought it would be creating jobs."
But two years later, Gilmour is struggling to pay her bills and is still looking for work.
"I went back to school and got a degree. I'm sending out resumes every week. I've been out there looking and I want to work 40 hours a week. I don't know what else to do," she said. "I'm angry and I'm mad."
Gilmour wonders what happened to the $4.5 billion in stimulus funds awarded to Indiana.
13 Investigates has been tracking the money.
The "official" numbers
According to INvest.in.gov, a state-operated website designed to track stimulus spending, about half of Indiana's ARRA funds have already been spent.
About $1 billion has been distributed to local school districts to retain teachers and provide specialized services.
$500 million has paid for highway construction projects.
Indiana's Department of Workforce Development spent nearly $40 million to fund participation in the Young Hoosier Conservation Corps.
Based on self-reporting by state agencies and grant recipients, the money has translated into thousands of jobs.
At any given time over the past two years, an average of 9,714 Hoosiers have been receiving the equivalent of a full time salary due to the stimulus, according to state data compiled by Eyewitness News.
But those numbers don't tell the whole story, and WTHR has found many ARRA projects resulted in few jobs while doing little to stimulate Indiana's economy.
Over $1 million for globular galaxies and grasshoppers
An analysis by Eyewitness News shows several of the state's top stimulus recipients are universities. They have received more than $300 million in ARRA funding for research projects to study everything from Alzheimer's Diseases, breast cancer and childhood obesity to weather forecasting, cell phone security and the Internet.
Among some of the more notable studies funded by the stimulus:
--$167,660 to Purdue University to study the stem cells of zebrafish.
--$681,439 to Indiana University to research globular galaxies.
--$200,291 to DePauw University to investigate the tails of salamanders.
--$449,895 to the University of Notre Dame to monitor Montana grasshoppers.
Gary Belovsky has been collecting and studying grasshoppers since 1978 – long before he accepted his current position as director of Notre Dame's Environmental Research Center. He was surprised to learn his longtime grasshopper study in northwest Montana was selected for stimulus funding.
"Let me make it very clear, I never applied for stimulus money," he told WTHR from his South Bend office. "What happened was stimulus money went to the National Science Foundation and they had to spend it, so they put it into some of their grant programs," Belovsky explained. "All of a sudden I'm told I'm funded, and then they tell me that the money is coming from stimulus funds. I really didn't expect that."
Now the grasshopper guru is left to explain why Indiana recovery funds are being spent to study insects in Montana.
"It's really no different than any other grant," he said. "You hear people all the time saying 'why are we spending research money to do these things?' The problem is most people don't understand how this research eventually translates into affecting their daily lives."
Belovsky says swarms of grasshoppers are capable of wiping out entire ranges of grasslands, resulting in financial devastation for ranchers. Studying the grasshoppers and their environment has helped the U.S. Department of Agriculture better understand how to control the insects, and the ongoing research is being used to help limit the estimated $1.5 billion annual cost attributed to the grasshoppers. That's why the respected professor takes a few dozen students to Charlo, Montana, each summer to participate in his study.
"I have no control over where research agency funds come from or what they are called, but I hope that you can see that research provides valuable, if not well appreciated benefits to society, and educational opportunities to make a brighter future," Belovsky said.
The stimulus grant provides approximately $90,000 for each of the next five years to fund a full-time research assistant and part-time help from dozens of undergrads. All together, the project will employee the equivalent of 2.2 full-time workers, according to Belovsky.
"It may be a very worthwhile purpose, but it's not in line with the intention of the economic recovery act," said Morton Marcus, who spent 30 years as director of the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University. Marcus says many well-intentioned projects funded by the stimulus result in few or no jobs.
"The problem is we've still got these millions and millions of people who are unemployed and that's where the need is," he said. "Getting them back to work is what really counts and, for the most part, the stimulus is not employing people who are in most need of being employed."
Where are the jobs?
13 Investigates found plenty of Indiana stimulus projects that did not put a single Hoosier back to work.
Noblesville, Carmel and Fishers, are paying $1.4 million in stimulus money to retrofit street lights with more energy-efficient bulbs and fixtures. City leaders admit there's nothing wrong with their current street lights.
"This wasn't a pressing issue when the stimulus projects came forward and it wasn't on the top of our maintenance list at this current time because the lights we have now are functional," said Fishers deputy town manager Scott Fadness. "But with the opportunity to get stimulus funding, we really thought this was something we should pursue. I think we can see some serious taxpayer savings."
What the Hamilton County towns will not see is new jobs resulting from the $1.4 million expenditure. City officials tell WTHR they expect the street light projects to create no local jobs.
It's a similar story at the Tippecanoe Battlefield Museum near Lafayette. The museum recently received nearly $90,000 in new windows, new furnaces and new air conditioners – thanks to a much-needed boost from the stimulus.
"It really helped. We couldn't have done all this with existing monies," said Allen Nail, superintendent of the Tippecanoe County Parks Department. Asked about the employment impact of the project, Nail shook his head.
"I'd say it kept local contractors working a few days, but in terms of jobs, I can't tell you they created new jobs," he said. "They likely did not create jobs."
"A lot of fuzziness"
Even state figures citing the equivalent of 9,714 Hoosier jobs funded by ARRA are somewhat misleading, according to a prominent Indiana watchdog.
"You can count up jobs but what kind of jobs were they?" asked Julia Vaughn, director of the non-profit Common Cause Indiana. "Are these permanent, good-paying jobs with benefits or are these temporary minimum-wage jobs with no benefits? I think we've had a lot of fuzziness as far as the real detailed information that I think consumers expected and, quite frankly, that we were promised."
Much of Indiana's stimulus is paying salaries for jobs that already exist – not creating new jobs for those who are unemployed. For example, the state sent hundreds of millions of stimulus dollars to local school districts, and most have used the money for teacher salaries, preventing widespread teacher layoffs. Many other stimulus jobs listed by the state and federal government lasted just a few months and then disappeared.
While stimulus funding has provided funding for thousands of salaries, it is still uncertain how many actual jobs can be directly linked to the program. In January 2009, the month before the President signed the stimulus act, 290,077 Hoosiers were unemployed, according to data from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. The agency's most current data shows two years later, the number of out-of-work Hoosiers is actually higher – 296,090 unemployed Indiana residents in December 2010 – despite billions of stimulus dollars awarded and spent in Indiana.
Stimulus supporters point out Indiana had a 10.7% unemployment rate and 343,311 out-of-work residents when stimulus money first began flowing in April 2009 – much higher than the state's current 9.5% unemployment rate – and they say about 47,000 fewer Hoosiers are unemployed now compared to 20 months ago. But DWD data shows nearly 100,000 Indiana residents left the state workforce during that same time period, which may explain an odd statistical phenomenon: from April 2009 to December 2010, the number of Indiana workers listed as unemployed dropped by 47,221 while the number of Hoosiers listed as employed dropped by 50,072. Strangely enough, fewer Hoosiers were out of work while, at the same time, fewer had jobs.
"The jury is still out on how effective this stimulus has really been at getting people back working," says Vaughn.
While both President Obama and Governor Mitch Daniels promised transparency and accountability with stimulus spending, federal and state accountability websites offer few specifics to help the public fully track stimulus expenditures, and Indiana is months behind in posting its reported spending.
Last month, the chairman of the U.S. government's Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board called for more extensive reporting of stimulus spending.
"More data, clearly presented, will give the public a better sense of what is going on in the massive government program," wrote board chairman Earl Devaney. "Those of us on the Recovery Board are not satisfied."
Robin Gilmour says she isn't satisfied, either.
"It's just hard when people tell you ‘there's jobs out there, there's jobs out there,'" she said. "I don't see them. I just don't see the stimulus. I don't see where it's helped at all."